Book Review: The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

This book is possibly the most traumatizing book I have ever read. I almost couldn’t get through it all, considering just how graphic and detailed it is. It is rare for me to do this but trigger warning if you plan to read this book. I will not be including any of the graphic details in my review mentioned in the book, but I’m warning you if you do indeed decide to read it.

Also, since I have been reading so much in the last week or so, this week will be completely comprised of book reviews. There are certainly some books I read which don’t leave a strong enough impression to warrant a long review, but this week I read a lot of books which did. So look out for a book review on Mon. and Wed. (though technically Monday’s review is an Japanese book, so I am on theme).

Before I get into my review of this book, I want to briefly talk about the author, because her story is also tragic. Her grandparents survived the rape of Nanking (just barely, as she explains in the book, as her grandfather was waiting on one of the last boats out of Nanking before the Japanese entered the city and her grandmother barely made it to join him) and her parents immigrated to America, where she was born. She became a historian and later wrote three books (this one is her second), before committing suicide in 2004 at age 36, leaving behind a husband and one son, who was two years old at the time of her death. In 2017, the Iris Chang Memorial Hall was finished in Huai’an, China (just north of Nanjing) to remember her contribution involving this massacre.

Release: 1997

Synopsis: This is a non-fiction novel documenting the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese during the Nanjing Massacre (alternatively spelling Nanking, 南京市) during the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Filled with graphic details, this book examines three different perspectives during the assault: the Japanese soldiers, the Chinese civilians, and the Europeans and Americans who established safety zones in the city.


If there is one book you want to read to learn the most about the Nanjing Massacre, this book is it. The book can be divided into three parts. The first part talks about the war/context leading up to the massacre, the second examines of the details/witnesses of the attack itself, and the third talks of the ramifications as well as news reports of the atrocities and trials of the perpetrators. It is a beautifully-written book, examining not only the facts themselves backed up with multiple sources, but also examining the psychology of why these things happened. I had heard of this horrible tragedy, but after reading this book I realize I didn’t know anything of the true horrors.

Because the book is so filled with details (which are mostly too gruesome for me to talk about in this review), I just want to focus on some of the big things that surprised me.

This book does not merely make the Japanese who destroyed Nanjing into monsters. Instead, Chang attempts to understand why something like this happened. How the Japanese could dehumanize the Chinese civilians to such an extant? Chang details the training of the Japanese soldiers, during which they would be mentally and psychologically abused in order to lose their empathy. She’s not trying to minimize what they did, and instead understand how perfectly ordinary human being could become monsters. It’s terrifying to me, to think that if I had been a young Japanese man at the time, I cannot find solace in the fact that I would be any different then those soldiers.

For the record, the exact death count of the sixty-day massacre is unknown, but Chang estimates it to be about 300,000 or half the population left in the city. That is insane, considering that is only in one city and after weeks of evacuation. Most of the people left in the city were those who were too poor to take a boat across the Yangtze River to safety.

I’m skipping over the details of the atrocities, mostly because I could barely stomach them when I was reading this book. Often times, the Japanese would promise mercy if the Chinese surrendered. But once they had surrendered, the men would be rounded up and shot (or decapitated) and buried in mass graves, while the women would be…actually let’s just skip what would be done to the women, because it was even worse. There is a reason this massacre is called ‘The Rape of Nanking.’

The only part of this book which was slightly uplifting was the part the Europeans and Americans played in trying to protect the Chinese citizens. There was a doctor, a Nazi businessman (John Rabe), and an American missionary (Minnie Vautrin, who ended up committing suicide in 1941 at age 54), among others, who would go around the city, witnessing many of the murders, and rescue the people they could. They would then take them back to foreign safe zones in the city, where the Japanese weren’t supposed to enter (they still tried, though). It is estimated that most of the people who did survive the massacre were in those safe zones. John Rabe would show his Nazi badge to Japanese soldiers in order to save people, which is mind-blowing to me because of what the Nazis did in the war back in Europe. Even the Nazis were shocked by the actions of the Japanese.

After the massacre, the book also looks at the trials following WWII (or lack thereof). China (led by Chiang Kai Shek) only accused four of the commanding officers of war crimes. In fact, Hisao Tani was the only one ever executed. Unlike the Nuremberg trials of 1945-46 and other reparations Germany was forced to make, Japan never had any punishment for its crimes. Many of the leaders who ordered their soldiers to do horrible things were never tried, and went on to live perfectly normal lives in Japan until their deaths. Compare that with any war criminals in Nazi Germany, who often escaped to South America to avoid trial and execution.

I have heard a couple negative things about this book. First, that it’s biased against Japan. I didn’t find it so. Of course, the atrocities are horrible, but Chang tries to understand why the soldiers committed the acts instead of just name-calling them monsters. Japan wasn’t evil. Instead, those in charge of Japan during the time engaged in evil actions. Second, that the book lies about how bad it was during the Massacre. Again, the book clearly gives sources for everything, naming witnesses and specific incidents. It wasn’t over-dramatic either, often sounding a bit cold in telling of horrible things. Basically, I thought this book gave a fair view of the incident. But what do you guys think?

Have you heard of the Nanjing Massacre (or Rape of Nanking)? Have you read this book? Or any other book about WWII in China? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

  1. It really is a traumatizing memory in Chinese history. I didn’t know how to comment two days ago until now. What a shame that as a Chinese citizen, I have never dug into  this horrible massacre except for some words in the textbook.

    I go to college in Nanjing, and in the city there’s a monument in memory of victims in the pathetic massacre. In my memory, the atmosphere there was  really depressing and sobering. There is a large wall where the known victims’ names are inscribed. And, I still remember a small part of the mass grave, with victims’ bones, right under the glass I stepped on. 

    Speaking of Sino-Japanese war, I hear about two stories from my family and boyfriend.

    The Japanese military used to invade my hometown, a small village in Wuxi. And my great grandpa’s brother, who was a young intern in a bussiness, was suspected as a spy by Japanese soliders because of his clothes. Then the Japanese soldiers brutally filled him with red pepper water, which was very spicy. His stomach was hopelessly damaged and he didn’t make it after my great grandpa rescued him.

    And in the Northeastern China where Manchukuo was established, my boyfriend’s grandpa, who was a little boy then, was educated by Japanese there. According to his recollection, in where he lived, Japanese stuck to the straight and narrow. They were very serious sticklers, even more than Chinese people there. They wouldn’t harm Chinese people unless they broke the rules. Thus, my boyfriend’s grandpa became a stickler too, paying attention to detais, taking tasks seriously and categorizing trash etc. This very different story really suprised me! How complicated humanity is!

    My boyfriend guesses that perhaps it was due to the difference between the soldiers and officials. The former were made up by different kinds of people, going through extremely pathetic war everyday, whose aim was only to conquer. The latter were well-educated elites, coming after soilders conquered the region, whose task was to administrate well, considered the region as a part of his country and loved the region as his country, so they seriously obeyed rules and regulations. These’re just his assumptions.

    As for why many Japanese people are in denial when comes to this horrible massacre, one opinion I read in a book on Japanese culture, is that there isn’t actually a powerful core in Janpanese culture. Everyone is responsible, thus, in other words, no one would actually take responsibility. This is one of explanations.

    According to your book review, I think the author was trying to be objective. She was really great! Kudos to her, and Kudos to those international friends who once gave a hand!

    History can’t be forgotten. Facts are facts. Only by remembering can we realize how valuable peace we now have is.

    I’m sorry I talk too much again. Thank you for your great review and recommendation! I’ll pick up the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, what a beautiful comment. It’s crazy to hear that your family (and your boyfriend’s) was personally effected by the Japanese coming into China. It’s so sad about your great-grandfather’s brother, and your boyfriend’s grandpa. It’s crazy to think even now, many people in China had close family who were effected by the tragedy. I want to visit Nanjing so bad to see the memorial, though I can imagine it would be quite sad to visit and see all the names.

      And you’re right. History cannot be forgotten. While of course most Japanese people (especially those living today) didn’t have anything to do with the tragedy, I worry that the government in Japan is trying to completely eliminate the history of World War II from their education system. In many Japanese schools, it is even being taught that China and the United States were the aggressors, and Japan merely defended itself. It’s so sad, for one of my favorite old sayings goes, “If you don’t know history, you are doomed to repeat it.” So history should not be forgotten!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review and I’d love to know your thoughts on this book if you ever do read it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, human beings are complicated. There’re lots of kind Japanese people. It’s so weired and disappointing that the government is trying to eliminate the history. In my humble opinion, denial is an act of coward… And I completely agree with the old saying!
        Wars are horribly pathetic. It gives birth to and stimulates many evil aspects of humans.
        Thank you for your warm comment! I hope you can visit Nanjing one day! It’s a beautiful city with historical atmosphere.:)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one I really want to read though I know it will be unsettling. I also think I may have read it before when I had to do a report on this tragic event in high school. It’s such a horrible thing to have happened.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m taking a WWII class for my graduate degree right now and we spent a lot of time talking about Nanjing and the situation in China in general. I knew that Japan had invaded China but I had no idea how brutal and long lasting the occupation was or how important it was to jump starting the war in the Pacific. I’ve been wanting to pick this book up for a long time! Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had only heard of the massacre last year in history class, my SENIOR year of high school. To be honest, we rarely read in the US about massacres that happen in other countries. I will definitely pick this book up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was an amazing, abet graphic, book! I don’t remember when I learned of this massacre. It was in high school, but I don’t remember really studying it in-depth. And many of the details of the incident I had never heard of, which was why I was glad to read this book. I hope you enjoy it, if you do end up reading it!

      Liked by 1 person

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